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'We're Willing to Die for Them,' Nun Says : Marcos Foes Guard Uncounted Ballots

February 10, 1986|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — Sister Lilia Frondaza refused to leave City Hall in the Manila suburb of Mandaluyong on Friday night--and Saturday night, and Sunday night.

Instead, the nun and hundreds of others who cast ballots in the town during Friday's crucial Philippines presidential election lit candles, chanted the rosary, nibbled on crackers and slept on the cement--all for 13 ballot boxes they say hold the key to their salvation.

"The ballot has become almost like life itself to us now," Frondaza said Sunday afternoon, two full days after an election marred by massive fraud, intimidation and manipulation.

"It's an expression of freedom for a people long oppressed. Those ballots are all we have left now for hope. So now, we're willing to die for them."

So were thousands of other citizens who slept under the stars, ate from donated food sacks, wearily sang psalms and said prayers and, most particularly, refused to budge from city halls and other counting centers throughout the nation. Meanwhile, vote canvassing continued to bog down in delays that the opposition blamed on an authoritarian president now deeply afraid he may lose.

Independent returns from an officially sanctioned, church-backed poll-watcher group continued to show President Ferdinand E. Marcos trailing Corazon Aquino in the strongest electoral challenge ever to his two decades in office. Longtime local political analysts and a U.S. delegation sent here by President Reagan to observe the polls said they are increasingly convinced that Marcos is engineering the delays to change the result in his favor.

Although there already has been documentation of cheating and intimidation by Marcos' ruling party during Friday's election, many Aquino supporters fear that officials of Marcos' handpicked Commission on Elections--which is charged with collecting the ballots and tabulating them for the official Tribunal of Canvassers--will switch ballot boxes or substitute fake election returns in areas where Aquino outpolled the president.

At the very least, Aquino's supporters charge, Marcos has deliberately delayed the counting in those regions to buy time. And so, a waiting game has begun.

It is, according to many of the laborers, clergy, professionals and business executives who have spent night and day at the counting centers since the polls closed Friday afternoon, a post-election extension of what the politically inexperienced Aquino called during her campaign "people power"--the populist bedrock of support in an unorthodox political machine.

As he sat among a group of men outside a construction shed containing the ballots cast in Manila's business district of Makati on Sunday, Bert Wong said that he, too, is willing to die there "if that's what it takes to protect my only chance for freedom."

"It's been 20 years now, and every time we hold an election in this town they steal it from us," Wong said. "This is our last stand. We know this is our last hope for democracy."

Like most districts and towns scattered across the 1,000 inhabited Philippine islands, Makati is controlled by a tough, ruling party mayor, Nemesio Yabut. Unlike most of the other 1,600 mayors that stitched together Marcos' formidable political machine, Yabut is extremely close to the first family, and he owes his vast wealth and power entirely to Marcos and his wife, Imelda.

In return, Yabut's most crucial function is to ensure a major, ruling party victory in his influential and vote-rich district in every election--especially when Marcos' own political future is on the line.

But the political climate has been changing in Makati, as Marcos' credibility and popularity have waned nationwide in recent years, and the business district ruled by an iron-fisted man whom Imelda Marcos once described as "a tribal chief" has now become the seat of the Philippines political opposition.

For example, in one of the many opposition street protests in Makati in the wake of the 1983 assassination of Marcos' chief rival, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., the husband of the president's election challenger, a heckler in a high-rise bank building dropped a plastic bag filled with urine on Yabut's head as he spoke at a pro-Marcos rally set up to bolster the president in difficult times.

And in national legislative elections two years ago that pitted a popular beauty queen from the opposition against one of Yabut's political proteges in Makati, journalists witnessed wholesale vote fraud and rigging, including the mass substitution of ballot boxes just before the counting process began.

In fact, the ballot boxes from Friday's presidential election had to be placed inside a construction shed because the room designated for them inside city hall is still filled with ballot boxes from 1984, pending a Supreme Court challenge of the outcome.

"If I have to stay here a whole week or a month, I don't care," said Wong, 40, the father of four. "This time, we're just not letting the boxes out of our sight, even for a second.

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